How to Help Kids When They Are Overwhelmed By Their Feelings

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Adolescence is a time of huge emotional turmoil. Our kids can feel overwhelmed by their feelings but they don't yet know how to regulate them. This is how you can help.

We all know the black hole moments. The moments when your child is overwhelmed by emotion. It might be frustration, shame, disappointment or hurt or any other powerful feeling. It doesn’t only happen to little kids; our teens can be overwhelmed and if we are brutally honest…so can we!

That emotion is raw and visceral and it sucks in everything in its proximity. It sucks in composure, rational thought and the ability to self-soothe, which often leads to poor behaviour. As parents and teachers watching, we are often rendered speechless and without strategies for calming and moving forward.

Unfortunately, often our speechlessness transforms into anger. We think that by being dominant and telling a child to ‘pull themselves together’ we can control the situation. Truth is, all we do is show the child that it is unsafe for them to show us their vulnerability.

So, what do we do?

Emotional coaching is a process that can help all parents and teachers. It is research-based and creates the space for us to connect with kids and help them learn how to self-regulate and problem solve. It can be used in all sorts of difficult social, emotional and academic situations. It was developed by The Gottman Institute but there are many similar processes around.

5 Steps of Emotional Coaching

  1. Listen to what is happening to you emotionally.
  • This is the time to recognise that you might be frustrated or disappointed or angry or any other of a myriad of feelings. It’s important to calm yourself before you coach your child. 
  • Calming yourself can take time, especially if you’ve had a difficult day and are feeling as though your own needs aren’t being met. Know that if you take the wrong attitude into this conversation it will go pear-shaped.
  • If you think you are in the wrong mindset to deal with an issue, make some space. Let your child know you need a bit of time because you are emotional too. Set a time when you are both going to sit down and talk. Timing is everything.
  1. Connect with Your Child.
  • Pay attention and acknowledge your child’s upset. This is also the time for eye contact and touch. Your child needs to know that you are there for them. Kids need to know they have our unconditional acceptance. Every time you don’t show that acceptance, you build a bigger barrier to them talking to you again.
  • Showing acceptance is not the same as agreeing with everything your child does. It doesn’t mean all behaviours are acceptable. It is the acceptance of them as a person that is unconditional.
  1. Listen carefully to what your child is telling you.
  • Listen to understand, not to fix or rescue.
  • Try not to judge or overreact. The way you react at this point will have a strong impact on the way your child perceives and responds to the situation.
  • Listen carefully and then feedback to them what you’ve heard to make sure you have understood correctly.
  1. Ask your child to name their emotions.
  • Recognising and naming emotions is very calming if it is to someone we trust. It’s amazing how our shoulders settle and our breathing calms a little when we are able to acknowledge that we feel ‘frustrated’, ‘disappointed’ or ‘hurt’. Teaching kids to name emotions is the first step in their emotional literacy. It is something that needs to be done on a regular basis. Not just at times of upset.
  1. Help your child find solutions.
  • This stage is for when everyone is calm, don’t expect too much too soon. It’s hard to think clearly when we’re emotional.
  • Try not to give your child solutions, help them to problem solve themselves. I tend to say, “What are three things we could try here?” Then help them pick the best option.
  • Please don’t swoop in and solve problems for your child. It disempowers them and they will never learn to trust themselves.

All sounds good in theory, doesn’t it! Don’t worry, I get that there are very few kids who are articulate and expressive enough to go through this process without a hitch.  Often you will come up against a blank stare or an, “I don’t know”.  And fact is, often kids don’t know how they feel and they have problems generating ideas. And that’s okay.

I asked Santa Maria College Psychologist, Jane Carmignani what to do when you’re trying to generate solutions and you come up against these walls. She provided the following strategies.

  1. Allow them time to think and answer. ‘I don’t know’ might actually mean, ‘I don’t want to sound silly’, ‘I just want this to go away’, or ‘I don’t want you to get mad’. You might need to let them go away and think.
  2. Brainstorm ideas together. Ask prompting questions, “Have you seen other people handle this? What did they do?” “What did you do last time? Did it work?“ Perhaps, give examples from your own experiences. Avoid peppering questions at them, again…give them time to think.
  3. Ask them the miracle question. “If you woke up tomorrow and everything was the way you wanted it to be, what would it look like?” This is a tool often used by child workers. It helps identify what is at the core of the problem and what a solution might look like.
  4. Have them write it down. Some people are more comfortable writing down their ideas than speaking about them. They find it easier to get their ideas in order this way. It is also common to ‘write your way to an understanding of the problem’.

Over time this process will become practised and easier. Eventually, your child will self-soothe and problem solve themselves. Emphasis here on ‘over time’. Kids are learning new emotional skills and that takes years. We need to accept that there are no quick fixes, we just have to sit with that fact.

That black hole moment will arrive countless times in the future. You are going to have lots of opportunities to practise these strategies and make adjustments to suit your child. No matter the variations, Ms Carmignani says, “Kids just want to be loved and listened to and valued in their family. We should make sure that’s true for them.”


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Linda Stade
Santa Maria College is located in Attadale in Western Australia, 16 km from the Perth CBD. We offers a Catholic education for girls in Years 5 – 12 and have 1300 students, including 152 boarders. Our goal is to assist students to become self-directed and independents learners. Santa Maria College consistently performs well and ranks in the top 10 schools in Perth in terms of median ATAR.
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This article is brought to you by Santa Maria College a WA Catholic Girls Schools – Years 5 – 12

Linda Stade
Santa Maria College is located in Attadale in Western Australia, 16 km from the Perth CBD. We offers a Catholic education for girls in Years 5 – 12 and have 1300 students, including 152 boarders. Our goal is to assist students to become self-directed and independents learners. Santa Maria College consistently performs well and ranks in the top 10 schools in Perth in terms of median ATAR.

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